In times of frustration, I often turn to the work of the “High Priestess Of Soul” Nina Simone, a courageous woman who spoke with a haunting clarity about the ills of racism in America.
“Mississippi Goddam,” written after the assassination of Medgar Evers and the deadly bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1964, has been on a constant loop in my head for the past two weeks.
Lord have mercy on this land of mine
We all gonna’ get it in due time – Nina Simone, “Mississippi Goddam”
This isn’t what I’d imagined for my first piece of writing in my relatively new role as Vice President of News and Men’s Programming at InteractiveOne. To be honest, there was no point prior to November 9, 2016 during which I sincerely believed that I would have to write anything of the sort.
But here I am trying to come to terms with the sobering reality that the United States of America elected Donald Trump as its next president. As a result, Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president, will be succeeded by a boorish, bigoted reality TV star with the temperament of a petulant child and the intellectual curiosity of, well, a spoiled teenager—and that’s putting it nicely.
Because I know and understand history, I have less confidence than most when it comes to testing the ability or will of Americans to make good decisions.
If bigotry is on the menu, I expect a large cross-section of our population to order it gleefully and “Supersize it!” As a trained observer, I have come to anticipate nothing less.
The Vacuous Notion Of A Post-Racial America
I never bought into the vacuous and preposterous notion that America was post-racial after President Obama’s elections. I knew we were anything but that.
Still, despite virulent anti-Black, anti-Muslim, and anti-Latino (and anti-woman, but we’ll get back to that) sentiments during the presidential race, I’d hoped that the sheer recklessness of electing someone so ill-suited for national office would frighten White voters.
But I was wrong to underestimate the stupidity of racists. After the election, I was despondent and disconsolate for the better part of a week, alternating between bitter anger, sadness, fear and guilt.
I wondered, should I have campaigned for Hillary Clinton? Though I didn’t wholeheartedly embrace her candidacy, I’d wanted her to be elected because she represented a number of things that I do believe in and because of the sheer unmatched danger of the other candidate. I also believed Black activists could work with her on certain issues and looked forward to being a thorn in her side for 4 years, keeping her accountable to my people.
Yet, I didn’t push the “pick the lesser of two evils” narrative to people who were sick of hearing it, sick of feeling taken for granted by the Democratic Party, which often offers little more than trickle-down loyalty to some of its most devoted voting blocs. It seemed fair to reason that Clinton and Trump both represented very diffrerent outcomes for the United States, and though it would be foolhardy to imagine the former leading African-Americans to any sort of ‘promised land,’ that she was clearly our best option. However, after decades of disappointment with the Democratic Party, it was unfair to expect that we’d be the ones to guarantee her election.
Black Women Showed Up For Clinton
Even with a perhaps tepid level of enthusiasm, we as Black women did what we always do: we showed up. We showed up for Clinton, and we showed up for ourselves—some of us doing so with pride, and others did so with shame at having to make such a concession.
But we did it. We are not to blame for a poorly run campaign that didn’t seem to listen to even the Black women who were working for it (or so I hear, ahem), nor are we to blame for the serious voter suppression efforts that were taken to keep Black people from exercising our right to choose. More importantly, we aren’t to blame for the people who took to the polls to cast a vote for a man who lacks the maturity to be first in line at the post office, let alone occupy the highest office in the land.
Yet, I can’t help but to feel a sense of regret for not trying. Perhaps that’s because no matter how ‘free’ or ‘liberated’ I like to imagine myself to be, I haven’t wholly divorced myself from the very American expectation that it is my responsibility to clean up White folks’ messes. And that, dear reader, is exactly what this is. This is bigger than the Democratic Party picking the ‘wrong’ candidate.
Cleaning Up White Folks’ Mess
Much of the responsibility for the rise of Trump lies with the dangerous “White moderate” that Dr. Martin Luther King warned us about; those who thought that ignoring racism was no worse that supporting it, Whites who were comfortable doing nothing to reconcile the legacy of genocide and slavery that built this nation, Whites who thought the existence of Black sitcom stars, co-workers and neighbors served as proof that everything was fine. But evidence to the contrary is legion.
How could we expect folks who can’t even challenge the bigotry of their own grandparents, siblings and spouses to vote with concern for LGBT communities, Muslims, Latinos and Blacks at the forefront of their minds? How could I expect that people who have been so passive in their opposition to racism would take to the polls en masse to make up for those who lost their votes to voter suppression, when they probably don’t know that the Voting Rights Act had been gutted in the first place?
The Reality TV President
And so here we are. A man who boasted of grabbing women “by the pussy” without permission is the next president. A man who knows so little about how to comport himself that his predecessor—the same predecessor that he forced to produce his birth certificate (as if a Black man who could have been disqualified somehow managed to make it to the office of president and be elected twice)—has allegedly agreed to spend more time helping with the transition than should be required, is the next president.
All I want is equality. For my sister, my brother, my people and me… – Nina Simone, “Mississippi Goddam”
In my work as a writer and cultural critic, I have worked to try and help people cope with the news of the day, to recognize both ties that bind and enemies that threaten. If I had the wit of Toni Morrison and the brilliance of James Baldwin, I still could not conjure words that would be a greater mirror into the soul of the United States than the election of Trump.
Now that the bleakness and craven depravity of the nation are more recognizable than ever, where do we go from here? I wish I could tell you.
In theory, much of America deserves Trump. We have pretended to have the moral authority to lead other nations (often violently) into “democracy,” while failing to abide by it ourselves. A nation stolen from indigenous people, built with the labor of enslaved Africans and sustained by the work of the poor, the disenfranchised and the loathed, should be seen for exactly who she is, and the election of Trump makes her true identity known in ways that the Obama presidency may have obscured.
“Oh, but this whole country is full of lies” – Nina Simone, “Mississippi Goddam”
People who chose to vote with their racism, sexism, anti-immigrant sentiments as opposed to issues that may impact their actual lives deserve Trump. Those of us who have actually worked to “make America great,” worked to keep the forked-tongued promises of the Founding Fathers by pushing for “liberty and justice for all” while being of color, queer, trans, immigrant, disabled, Muslim and/or female, will suffer under the hands of a Trump administration. We don’t deserve this, not one bit.
For much of my life, I’ve been told that Black people must shield our anger—that we should hide or reject, in order to protect ourselves, or to make other people comfortable, or to simply get through the day.
Dear reader, I cannot wear a mask and I don’t recommend that you don one either. These are difficult times, but we’ve yet to know easy ones on this soil. For those of us who believe in combating bigotry and oppression in all its forms, we have much work to do. In order to do this work, we will have to confront our pain, our sorrow, our frustrations and our anger. We have a right to have it and a charge to channel it effectively.
As I say to myself, “America goddam” with each troubling piece of news related to the new administration, I have to hold tight that the world we want is possible. I must continue to believe that this country can be a place for all of us, a place where we can live, love, work and exist in harmony.
As we focus on moving forward, I understood that I could not write a word for this space until I got this off my chest. This is my personal take on recent events, and I look forward to sharing additional thoughts and reflecting on the words of other writers, editors and readers. May we be raw and honest as Nina Simone, as we push for a world in which her words become prologue.
Goddam America! America Goddam!
Jamilah Lemieux is the Vice President of News and Men’s Programing for InteractiveOne.